29 April 2005 | Asa_Nisi_Masa2
"Don't exclude anything on principle"
Besides boasting wonderful performances by two of my favourite actors (Marcello Mastroianni and Harvey Keitel), Il Mondo Nuovo (as it's known in Italy) by acclaimed Italian director Ettore Scola is to me as satisfying as a good classic novel, one of those 800-page tomes you approach with a little trepidation and then remember for years to come, wishing other novels you read would compare.
It's the year 1791 and on board a stagecoach, an assortment of characters from different parts of the world are traveling from Paris to Verdun. Along the way the coach picks up the aging (his character is 67 years old in the film), legendary Venetian seducer Giacomo Casanova, as well as the controversial, fawn-like but ahead-of-his-time chronicler and novelist, Restif de la Bretonne. The stagecoach's original travelers include the American Revolution survivor Thomas Paine (Keitel), as well as a melancholic and reserved widow aching to fall in love again, a beautiful and intelligent yet devoutly Monarchist Austrian Countess, a sharp and cheeky Italian opera singer eternally clutching a pet poodle and poking fun at her dim and bigoted husband, as well as a cocky young Jacobean. The coach also includes their servants, among whom the young Countess's devoted butler and her pretty African maid, who soon hooks up with the young Jacobean. Not far ahead of them, another stagecoach carrying the fleeing French royal family - Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their children is also traveling along the same road, unaware this will be the route to their irrevocable death sentence.
The story is told through the dialogues and anecdotes of a group unaware of their status as main witnesses to what will turn out to be one of history's most pivotal moments. Besides the breathtakingly authentic feel of the time - you really feel like you've stepped into a Hogarth painting - what's most remarkable is how you also get the sense such historic events are happening in real time, so convincing are the reactions of bewilderment and astonishment on the character's part. A series of vignettes, made delicious by the top-class characterisation and dialogue, contribute to moving the plot along as well as giving the viewer some light relief which however never loses sight of the breathless atmosphere of those revolutionary times.
Mastroianni as the self-deprecating, tired, aging Casanova is a treat from the very first frame he graces to the last. This legendary actor has always brought a unique depth of humanity to his roles, but despite all the other fine actors and characters in this film I just couldn't have imagined it without him. I adored the moment, after having charmed all the ladies and even some of the men on the stagecoach, Casanova kisses the young Austrian Countess's besotted gay butler on the lips and as a parting shot says: "I don't exclude anything on principle."
Especially memorable are the final frames of the film, in which the young Austrian Countess and her butler, after having dressed a wooden dummy in a spartan inn room with the doomed king's ceremonial costume, bow down to it with devotion, symbolising the ephemeral and temporal nature of an earthly kingdom. Some will consider this Italo-French production overlong, others won't be fond of its un-Hollywoodlike approach to the historic genre, others will even consider some of its characters unappealing. On my part I consider these the film's strengths and cannot help but warmly recommending it. My only real complaint is: why hasn't it yet been released on DVD?